Waterboardin’ Brothers: The ISIS And The US

Over at The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi writes on the inhumane treatment the ISIS meted out to those they held hostage (some of whom, like James Foley, were subsequently beheaded). Of particular interest to all Americans should be her descriptions of their torture techniques:

The story of what happened in the Islamic State’s underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding….At one point, their jailers arrived with a collection of orange jumpsuits….they lined up the French hostages in their brightly colored uniforms, mimicking those worn by prisoners at the United States’ facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They also began waterboarding a select few, just as C.I.A. interrogators had treated Muslim prisoners at so-called black sites during the George W. Bush administration….Within this subset, the person who suffered the cruelest treatment…was Mr. Foley. In addition to receiving prolonged beatings, he underwent mock executions and was repeatedly waterboarded. Meant to simulate drowning, the procedure can cause the victim to pass out. When one of the prisoners was hauled out, the others were relieved if he came back bloodied.“It was when there was no blood,” a former cellmate said, “that we knew he had suffered something even worse.” [italics added]

If ‘waterboarding‘ is now a distinguished member of the American lexicon it is not because the US, as defender of human rights and exporter of freedom, has undertaken a bold, morally inflected campaign to stamp out its usage. Rather it is because its use as an ‘enhanced interrogation technique,’ as an instrument of foreign policy, and the subsequent failure to punish those who indulged in it has become the starkest recent instance of American hypocrisy in a domain which can ill afford such displays.

A hypocrite easily provokes rage; a sanctimonious, blustering, bullying hypocrite provokes an effusion of bilious resentment, which cannot be suppressed for too long. It all too easily finds expression in violence.  This resentment need not be confined to the socially disenfranchised, the poor, the usual subjects of concerned theorizing; instead, even those considerably more fortunate in life may find themselves infected by its virulence. Perhaps we should be a little less surprised than we profess to be that such a motley crew finds itself attracted to the fulminations of the ISIS. Its activities promise them release from the febrile anger that surges through them–no matter how barbaric.

Let us then, gaze upon the evidence before us, of where we have been brought, of how far the mighty have sunk: a prominent arrow in the quiver of one of this world’s most depraved political entities is a torture technique it has borrowed from those who loudly proclaim their perennial standing as arbiters of the world moral order. The long road to moral perdition that began with the declaration of an illegal war against Iraq in 2003 is finding, now, its wholly expected terminus–a rendezvous and commingling and hail-brother-well-mets with those that were supposedly the antithesis to our thesis.

Costas Gavras’ Missing: Harbinger of Disillusionment

A little while ago, on this blog, while writing of my reading of Alex Haley’s Roots as a schoolboy I made note of it as “a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of the US forever.” Another distinguished member of that group would be Costas Gavras‘ Missing, a chilling movie that,

[I]s based on the true story of American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that deposed the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende.

Set largely during the days and weeks following Horman’s disappearance, the movie depicts his father and wife searching to determine his fate.

 I saw Missing as a teenager, alone, at a New Delhi cinema; like most movies that I went to see in those days, I knew little about what I was in for. Indeed, my level of ignorance ran embarrassingly high: I did not know who Allende or Pinochet were; I did not know there had been a coup in Chile in 1973. And I knew nothing, certainly, of the US role in it. But I had been assured the movie’s director was ‘famous’, that the movie had garnered critical acclaim. So I bought my tickets, and settled down to watch.

I realized very quickly, that something terrible was afoot; a nation was in turmoil, and innocents were being swept up in a maelstrom of violent political change.  Soldiers ruled the streets; gunfire rang out; and blunt, uncaring, force was applied to all too many who ran afoul of those seizing and retaining power. An atmosphere of menace hung over the urban landscapes the movies’ characters traversed, and a grimly inevitable fate seemed in store for all too many of them. One of them, of course, was Charles Horman, a young journalist–living and working with his wife in Santiago–and who, for whatever reason, falls afoul of the military authorities and is arrested and whisked away. He goes missing.

The nightmare begins at this point. Horman’s father, Ed, flies down from the US to look for his son, and expects, quite reasonably, that the US consular staff will assist him–and Horman’s wife, Joyce–as they seek to determine Horman’s whereabouts. Instead, they encounter a grim, baffling world of evasion, hostility and thinly concealed threat. The adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ is used too often; but it is never more appropriately used than here to describe the dead-ends, misdirections, indifference and obtuseness the Hormans encounter.

And that’s just the American response. It is clear, all too soon, that something terrible has, in all probability, happened to Charles Horman. And it is also all too clear that the American administration in Chile might have had something to do with it.  Or perhaps they know what happened to Charles, but they aren’t telling. As father and wife stumble from pillar to post, from embassy to jail to killing field to morgue, their grief, rage, frustration and anxiety mounts, as does the anger and the fear of the viewer.

At one stage, an American consular officer, utters the following chilling lines to Hormans’ desperate, anguished father:

I don’t know what happened to your kid, Ed. But I understand he was a bit of a snoop. Poked his nose around in a lot of dangerous places where he didn’t really belong. Now, suppose I went up to your town, New York, and I started messing around with the Mafia. I wind up dead in the East River. And my wife or my father complains to the police because they didn’t protect me. They really wouldn’t have much of a case, would they? You play with fire, you get burned.

And that is that.

We never find out what happened to Charles Horman. But we suspect, as Horman’s father and wife do, that he might have met a fate similar to those whose bodies they have seen, victims of torture and execution.

As the movie ends, the following epilogue appears, in white lettering, on a black background:

Ed Horman filed suit charging eleven government officials, including Henry A. Kissinger, with complicity and negligence in the death of his son. The body was not returned home until seven months later, making an accurate autopsy impossible. After years of litigation, the information necessary to prove or disprove complicity remained classified as secrets of state. The suit was dismissed.

I walked home, a little heartsick. I had witnessed the most frightening of encounters: between mere citizens, powerless and alone, and all-powerful, opaque and violent bureaucracies. I was shaken, and for days afterwards, was haunted by the sorrow and anger and fear I had seen writ large on those who searched, futilely and desperately for their missing loved one. I had begun to dream of a life in the US; and suddenly, uncomfortably, I realized my future home had dimensions and depths to it that I had yet to discover.

General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

The initial reaction to the hiring of General David Petraeus to teach at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College was one of astonishment at the salary–$150k for one semester–offered; this has since devolved into looking askance at the source of the funds and an inquiry into whether such expenditure was the best possible for a public university that is always struggling to make ends meet. (For a full round-up, please check Corey Robin‘s posts on this subject.). And since the course description for Petraeus’ course has been made available much skepticism has been directed at what seems like an exceedingly skimpy course, at best a generic international relations elective.

Petraeus is not teaching a specialized seminar for graduate students, or faculty, or anything like that. He is teaching sixteen undergraduates a senior year special topics elective. Presumably, his salary is a function of what CUNY perceives his worth to be, based on his experience and education. The weekly rate for Petraeus is not unheard of when it comes paying very accomplished academics; for instance, last year, the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, as part of its Hess Scholar in Residence program, brought Sean Wilentz, the distinguished Princeton historian to the Brooklyn College campus for a  week; the amount paid to him–from the Hess Foundation–worked out to about the same rate as paid to Petraeus. But in that one week, Wilentz attended half-a-dozen faculty panels, some undergraduate classes and three working luncheons, and delivered a talk. In sharp contrast Petraeus will teach his regular class, once a week, just like any other adjunct would. (I presume he will have a TA, unlike adjuncts.)

With that in mind, here are some alternative scenarios for CUNY to ascertain what its market pricing for highly skilled and experienced teachers might be. Bear in mind we know nothing about Petraeus’ teaching abilities; he is just a highly educated and experienced military man.  So, what would CUNY pay for a distinguished academic , the winner of the highest honor in his or field, to teach a class in their special domain?

Consider the following examples:

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry to teach Concepts in Nanochemistry

A Nobel Prize winner in Physics to teach a Quantum Mechanics seminar

A Nobel Prize winner in Economics to teach Special Topics in Microeconomics

A Nobel Prize winner in Literature to teach Creative Writing: Advanced Techniques

A Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine to teach Recent Advances in Genetics

A Fields Medal winner to teach Advanced Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields

An Academy Award winning director to teach and direct a film in co-operation with Film Studies majors.

Would CUNY pay any of these 150,000 dollars to teach the class specified? Remember that CUNY does not have, like some other universities in the US, Nobel Prize winners in its ranks. If it was to secure the services of such a luminary, it would almost certainly hold it out as an attraction for its ‘best’ students–as it seems to be doing in the case of this Honors College seminar. My guess is that if CUNY was feeling generous, it would pay the folks above $20,000.  Maybe.

So, why the special treatment for Petraeus? As I said yesterday in my last post on this subject, it’s because bringing Petraeus, a powerful member of the governmental-military-corporate complex, to CUNY, will open the doors for folks in CUNY administration to get close to cushy consulting gigs in Washington DC, with the Pentagon, with the military, with all those folks in industry that Petraeus is, as we speak, networking with right now. They will have Petraeus here for a semester, and that is plenty of time to give him a copy of their CVs over a cup of coffee or dinner. Once he goes back to his regular tramping of the corridors of power, he will be able to take care of those who took care of him.

So, it bears repeating: this hiring decision has nothing to do with the students at CUNY; it has everything to do with folks in power taking care of each other.

CUNY Board of Trustees and General Petraeus: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The ‘General David Petraeus is teaching at CUNY for a ludicrous amount’ scandal has been brewing for a while now. To catch up on its all its salacious, rage-provoking details, you could do worse than check out Corey Robin‘s coverage. In brief: cash-strapped urban public university invites retired US military figure to teach one course for an astronomical salary–the funding source for which remains dubious. This is the same university whose infrastructure is in disrepair, which cannot adequately fund research conducted by its faculty members, nor keep tuition for its students from rising every year. (To add final insult to injury, check out the poorly-written, skimpy course description of the Petraeus dropping, er, offering.)

A few years ago, I attended a CUNY Board of Trustees meeting. (I have attempted, in the past, on this blog, to provide some background on these worthies.) During the meeting, the subject of the generous pay packages for CUNY top administrators, which were in sharp contrast to the meager raises then being offered to CUNY faculty, came up. The faculty union representative pointed out the impropriety of sharply increasing salaries for adminstrators at a time when faculty were not even being paid cost-of-living increases. Benno Schmidt, now Chair of the Board of Trustees, and possibly Chair back then as well, spoke up sharply: ‘The faculty needs to learn that in order to get good work done at the university, you need to pay good money. If they think that’s expensive, they’ll find out just how expensive it is to not pay good money’. (This outburst was followed by an anti-union rant by the notorious Jeffrey Weisenfeld, which was met with much head-nodding by those seated around the table.)

I’ve never forgotten that meeting or that statement. There was no way to efface the memory of the belligerent, pompous expression on Schmidt’s face, simultaneously suffused with the smug satisfaction of the worst kind of sanctimonious hybrid: the businessman-priest.  There, in that attitude, that defiance, that anger at the union representative who had dared speak up, was encapsulated a great deal.

Higher education is a cash cow; there’s gold in them thar hills. University administrators know this, which is why, in recent times, they have swelled their ranks and their salaries at the expense of everyone else in the business. All those MOOC companies lining up to get the fat online education contracts from soon to be privatized public universities–once the greatest advertisement in the world for public education–know this. And like any other sector of the American economy the educational one showcases economic inequality: students, adjuncts, faculty all make do with very little, while the ‘management’ gets richer and richer.

And most importantly, this management class takes care of its own. They ensure generous retirement packages for each other and when they see a brother looking for a new gig, especially after a scandalous hiccup or two, like Petraeus, they run to help. Besides, the backscratching will go the other way too. After all, won’t Petraeus, down the line, take care of, somehow or the other, his new buddies on the CUNY Board of Trustees too? Connections to the halls of power, perhaps some consulting at the Pentagon or the CIA, down the line?

CUNY administrators and the members of the Board of Trustees aren’t just doing this to raise the university’s profile; they are doing this because they are good networkers.